Tagged: learning

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Why personal projects matter

Although I’ve chosen making websites as my profession—either freelance or as part of a team—I’ve always tried to make time for personal projects, the very first one and longest running being my own website of course. And despite the fact that only “real client work” is paying the bills, I think we as webdesigners can benefit profoundly and in many different aspects from working on our own projects from time to time.

Starting small

Let me tell you a little story. Some time ago, some of my team mates and me decided to try and taste a new beer every friday. Think of it as a weekly cool down/reward event. We set some rules (german beer only, real beer, no mixed beverages allowed) and we were eager to find out, how many fridays we could go on like this before there were no beers left that we hadn’t tried before. Admittedly a fanciful endeavour, but we started it nonetheless.

Soon we realised, we needed to keep track of the beers we tasted, not only to avoid repetition, but also because we wanted to rate them with a simple five star system. An ordinary spreadsheet was the obvious way to go at first, but that didn’t last very long.

Turning it up

After only a few weeks I thought: maybe I could write a little web application for that. It took me just one (although very long) evening to throw together a basic version that allowed people to log in, submit and edit new beers and of course to rate them. Over the course of a few days we came up with some improvements that I implemented and voilà: we had something we could use to replace our boring spreadsheet.

The beer app

I really enjoyed building this thing. Not just because it really helped us “scratch our own itch”, but also because I had the opportunity to try new things and learn from it in the process. I figured out how to use the Processwire CMS for handling the data, I learnt about user management and sessions, I got to use flexbox a lot for layout purposes and I tried to make the interface as fast as possible. And thanks to Jeremy’s insights, I dipped my toes into SVG sparklines to create activity visualisations.

Up until now, we have assembled a nice backlog of ideas to further enhance our little app. I’m sure I’ll have a go at making the site work offline using a service worker at some point for instance.

Taking it one step further

Our initial plan was to try and taste one beer every friday. But soon enough, we started using the app outside of that time constraint. Barely three months in, there were already over 60 beers submitted, tasted and rated.

Not having found the perfect beer for us (yet), we came up with another plan: we wanted to make our own beer! After a few weeks of research and gathering of materials we started brewing. Of course, our beer needed a name and appropriate branding so we started working on those things during our lunch breaks and in our free time. We came up with some basic design elements and just went from there: we created a website, a Facebook page and an Instagram account that we’ve been posting on ever since.

Logo and merchandise comps

You see where I’m going with this, right?

It fascinates me how ideas turn into small side projects and that these projects themselves spark other ideas that turn into projects once again.


I think, personal projects are incredibly valuable for a number of reasons:

Freedom of failure

Unconstrained by any client work, you can just do whatever you like. Never used a particular technique before? Just go ahead and do it. What could go wrong? The cost of failure is very low, the learning possibilities however are endless.

Learning opportunities

If we’re not careful, we tend to get stuck in kind of a rut when we do client work. Sure, every client is different and we need to adapt how we approach things depending on specific requirements. But: we are also humans. And as such we try to do things in a way we feel comfortable with. Working on a side project allows us to do things differently and in doing so offers us the possibility to learn new things, which then in turn can find their way back into our day to day client work. Just recently a colleague asked me about a particular problem she was having and I immediately knew the answer, because I had just encountered that exact same situation when I was working on the app.

Sparking creativity

Working on something you are excited about is an excellent catalyst for new ideas. We went from beer tasting to developing a web application to brewing our own beer in just a few weeks. I really like the kind of flow you’re getting into, especially if it’s not just you working on a personal project. When there are other people involved, there’s infinite room for bouncing around ideas and sharing thoughts.

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What I learnt today: solid and process colours

Today a colleague asked me to help her finish a PDF that she needed to send to an online print shop. They specifically asked for a document created with solid colours (instead of process colours), either in Pantone or HKS.

The last time I had to deal with things like this was probably ten years ago, during my photography apprenticeship. Back then, I learnt a lot about colour theory and the printing process.

Today, it took me a couple of minutes, but my memories emerged slowly and steadily and I could answer her question. I guess everthing we learn can be of some use sometimes. That’s what I learnt today.

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What I learnt today: legacy code

Today I needed to add functionality to a website I built five years ago. As we all know, five years on the web feel like centuries.

I worked through some of the code I’d written, both head-shaking and amusedly smiling. Boy, did I write some silly stuff back in the day! But it’s in situations like this that I realise how far I’ve come since then and how much I’ve learned along the way. That’s what I love about working on the web. And that’s what I learnt today.

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What I learnt today: the iCalendar format

Today I dipped my toes into the iCalendar format. Following the RFC 5546 standard’s specification, the iCalendar format basically allows sharing events and tasks via text files that come with the extension .ics.

I was asked to write an iCalendar integration for one of our client’s websites which would allow their users to download events and then import them into their calendar application of choice. After reading up on the spec for a bit, I figured it would be a lot easier to just reverse-engineer an .ics file. It’s a text file after all and for me this is the most effective way of learning new stuff – the “view source” approach of learning.

The .ics format isn’t really that complex: there are opening and closing statements, properties and values, and to get a basic example working, I didn’t really need much time. I went on and added things like repeatable events and reminders and by the end of the day I managed to create a solid working example that I can now build upon. All in all a very rewarding experience. And that’s what I learnt today.

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What I learnt today: learning happens everyday

In a recent episode of the unfinished business podcast, Andy Clarke is joined by Jeffrey Zeldman and Jeremy Keith to talk about writing on the web. Jeremy explains his 100 words project and stresses the importance of writing for yourself on your own website. They also touch briefly on the subject of learning and how we sometimes feel we stagnate in learning new things.

This very inspiring conversation got me thinking. To be honest, I’ve been guilty of holding back and self-censorship when it came to writing, although I’ve always wanted to write more. And the reasons are always the same: either I thought the subject I was going to write about wasn’t interesting enough, or I assumed someone else had already written about it.

But when it comes to learning, I don’t really have the feeling of stagnation. Although I’ve been working in web design and development for about 8 years now, I’m picking up new things every day – not to mention the stuff I’m learning outside of work.

I think it really depends on what we define as learning. If we’re talking about picking up a new skill then sure, we don’t learn new things everyday, simply because it usually takes more than one day to do something completely new with confidence. But for me, learning is much more than familiarizing myself with a new technique. In it’s essence, I see learning as a gaining of knowledge. I think people are constantly learning new things, however small they may be, but they’re not really aware of it anymore.

To overcome one issue and appreciate the other, I decided to write about the things I learn everyday. This may be something web design or development related or something completely different. The point is, to recognise that learning happens every day and to be conscious of it.

And that’s what I learnt today.